On people who are people and the process of characterisation

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One of the most startling epiphanies or realisations I’ve reached with time is that other people are people too. The older I get, the more profound this concept becomes to me.

When you’re a child and the world revolves around you, you are programmed to believe – subconsciously, more often than not – that people, their reactions, their words and everything about them, are almost robotic. Being as we cannot read minds, it is actually quite difficult for us to grasp that other people have thought processes and histories and hopes and fears – that their mood may be influenced by the weather or last night’s dreams. Sometimes everything just feels a little scripted.

And it is reassuring to believe that other people know what to say and do. It’s comforting to view them as things which have been placed in your life for no other reason than for you to react to them. It’s also reassuring to believe that if shit hits the fan, somebody will know what to do.

One of the moments I realised I was growing up was when I realised my parents are people too. I knew of course that they were young and that they had lives before I came into the world but all that didn’t really apply to me. But realising my parents had thoughts which were inaudible to me, that their lives continued even when they were out of my line of sight… that made me slightly uneasy. It meant they were fallible.

It’s scary to realise that they’re not the only people who are people. Your teachers were people. Your school principal was a person. If you had told me when I was 13 that the headmistress was a person I would have scoffed. As if! She was stoic and strict and unsympathetic. She was alien – did not understand what we were going through. But one day after I left school I took it upon myself to visit her after she had taken ill and, with sadness in her voice, she told me I was one of the only girls who did. That’s when I knew she was a person.

Scarier still is the though that people who run our countries are people too. They fuck up sometimes. Ahem, sometimes, they fuck up even more frequently than sometimes. Weird, isn’t it, that our Prime Minister and our Opposition leader may actually have feelings. Strange that Barack Obama might be afraid of some things.  Bizarre that Osama Bin Laden’s mother probably tucked him into bed at night when he was a child.

One of the most interesting parts about being an actor is the rehearsal process. I do not necessarily belong to one specific school of thought when it comes to the process of getting into character. I tend to agree with David Mamet that the actor’s priority is to learn his lines, almost religiously, because a lot of the work has been done already by the playwright. The script, if you let it, will tell you exactly where to breathe, where to pause, where to raise your voice.

Still, while I don’t subscribe to the whole ‘be a tree’ way of getting into the Stanislavskian method (simply because I am not a fucking tree, thanks, and while I can stretch my arms out to look like branches and while I can be still, I do not share the memories of a tree, not will I ever be a tree – or ‘fire’, or ‘January’), I do believe the human experience is one which is shared. It is shared by all humans, everywhere, regardless of age, era, race, social background, occupation, sex or sexuality. We are all driven by something, we all hunger for something, none of us are ever truly happy with what we have except in retrospect, we all feel lust and wanting, we all want to belong to something.

And so I don’t believe any actor can ever do justice to any character if he doesn’t at least try to understand the thoughts behind that character’s actions. Many people say many things but nobody ever says anything for nothing, really, and we are so very much more than words and actions. Our thoughts should define us just as much as our words do – only it’s that much harder as they are private. Experience exists even in silence and introspection. You could have a life-changing moment sitting quietly in your room, contemplating something, without ever uttering a word.

My character in Osama the Hero is called Louise. The script never gives away her surname, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have one. The script gives you the skeleton but it’s the actor’s job to flesh it out and ensure the audience gets a 3-dimensional image – that the audience gets to witness a fully rounded person and not just a sketch, not just words.

Louise does some pretty fucked up things in the play. Why? The script doesn’t really say. But Louise knows why, and so I should too.

And if a fictional character deserves that much, just think about how much a real person who is a person deserves. Just think about how that changes everything. The next time you’re in an argument, the next time somebody wrongs you, perhaps you should try to really get into that person’s brain and understand why they do what they do. You just might find comfort in that.

Things happen and people do things and make mistakes. While it’s not easy or fair to dismiss and justify every action (Hitler was a person, Saddam Hussein was a person, Jim Jones was a person – should we justify their actions too?), you may find it comforting to remember that everybody does and says things for a reason, for a human reason. Whether that reason is valid or not is a whole different kettle of fish, but understanding that people are people (even the people who wrong you) may just be the first step in letting go, making your peace with the situation and moving on with your life.

4 Comments
  • Miriam
    February 1, 2011

    Davinia, Davinia, Davinia… your words have the ability to hit me in the face, poke me in the side and lick my brains better all at once.

    • admin
      February 2, 2011

      I’m glad you liked this :)
      I need to write long pieces like this more often.

  • Sarah
    February 2, 2011

    I can’t remember when I started, but for a long time now I have often wondered what it’s like to be in someone else’s head. It’s something I do while people watching, I’ll pick a person and wonder, as they walk by me, what the world looks like from their perspective. It fascinates me and yet I know I’ll never find out.

    • admin
      February 4, 2011

      I feel that too. And sometimes my own thoughts are so clear that I’m afraid somebody will be able to hear them. Not so, of course.

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